VERNACULAR AESTHETIC: Reestablishing the Landscape of Locale

The word vernacular is most commonly applied to speech, considered the parlance of a given group.  When applied to a visual style, it is taken to mean a localized phenomenon that is part of a very particular culture such as the hortillonnages, the floating vegetable gardens near the French city of Amiens, or African-American gardens in the rural South.  I propose broadening this concept to include a landscape aesthetic based on the visuals of locale.

The view of a given area takes in more than its geography, being heavily influenced by botanical expression.  Botany is site-specific, dependent upon the climate associated with geographical placement but also upon topography and geology.  The white pine of my beloved Maine, for example, is here because it loves the acidic soil, which is propelled to its extreme pH by the granite ledge underlying the state.  That white pine has a botanical shape, as well, similar to other evergreens but softer in overall attitude.  Next to the stiff formality of a Colorado blue spruce it appears almost relaxed, with a fluidity that echoes our long stretch of the Atlantic and a color that matches the deepest hue in these vast, cold waters.

Why, then, are we settling for the same generic suburban landscapes found in Connecticut or New Jersey?  And why, for that matter, are the landscapes in Connecticut and New Jersey evocative of everywhere but their locale?  The desert Southwest, with increasing public awareness surrounding issues of water, is doing a great job of xeriscaping, of using native, drought-tolerant plant materials to construct landscapes appropriate to the region.  Here in the Northeast, however, the habit of landscaping in styles other than our own is well ingrained, and since the need to conserve is not so present, the habit wins.  Absent need, absent state or municipal dicta forcing us toward new habits, how can a different landscape aesthetic take root?  Put another way, can a call for change be predicated solely on aesthetic principles and still overcome the lethargy of the status quo?

I say yes for two reasons, the first being that we are witness to a cultural shift in the importance placed on environmental issues.  Ecological impact is emerging as a primary consideration in terms of our behavior, and the case is easily made that a landscape design aesthetic centered around native flora is more ecologically sound.  Whether this new focus marks the beginning of true empathy with the natural world, I can only hope, because I concur wholeheartedly with Anne Whiston Spirn:

“I now believe that promoting the harmonious coexistence of nature and humankind depends upon more than knowledge alone.  Equally important are a sense of empathy — the projection of one’s own consciousness into another being, thing, or place — and the power of imagination.  My book The Language of Landscape and the one I am currently working on, The Eye Is a Door, aim to help people read landscapes as products of both nature and culture and to inspire them to envision new landscapes that restore nature and honor culture.” ~Landscape Theory 

This honoring of culture is the basis for the second reason behind my belief that the landscape world is ready for change.  It is also the basis for my absolute lack of affinity for the current design modality, which seems to take one of two forms:  it honors any culture but that of the area or it is the product of big-box mentality, so homogenized as to be entirely culture-less.  In reality these states are merely two sides of the same coin — we have no wish for society to view us as peculiar, and so we adopt a style that has been used in the past or is accepted elsewhere rather than stepping out of bounds.

“For all that we mock those who fake aesthetic enthusiasms in hopes of gaining respect, the opposite tendency is the more poignant, whereby we repress our true passions in order not to seem peculiar.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

Those same societal boundaries keep many of us within the builder’s generic landscape plan, even if it is the same as every other tract in the development, even if we don’t particularly like it.  The builder, though, is not interested in botany or expressions of regional flavor; the builder is interested in making the sale and moving on, because that has become the accepted business model.

“Before [WWII] one-third of all houses were built by their owners.  Small contractors, who averaged fewer than five houses a year, built another third.  By the late 1950s, about two-thirds of the new houses in the United States were produced by large builders. … By the early 1950’s the tract house as a conventional box was commonplace.  Any regional vernacular styles… were downplayed in favor of national Cape Cod or ranch-house designs.” ~Building Suburbia

This is, of course, the natural fall-out of the tilt away from building communities to building housing lots.  Although we are still maintaining in the landscape an image of the picturesque enclave, it is a faint and rather hollow echo.

“As decades went on, the picturesque enclave, carefully fitted to its hilly terrain with winding and well-graded roads, augmented with handsome community parks, appeared in more and more reduced form as a flat subdivision with just a suggestion of two-dimensional curvature to the streets.  By the 1920s, design of the picturesque enclave was routinized.  Every new suburb included the word ‘park’ in its name, whether it had a park or not.  Developers swapped [planning] schemes for increasing lot frontage.” ~Building Suburbia

We have spent a great deal of time following a path away from site-specific design, from a vernacular that speaks to locale, but that time can only be considered lost if we continue along this route despite knowing that we are far afield.

“We should be free to imagine how much tastes could evolve if only new styles were placed before our eyes and new words in our vocabulary.  An array of hither-to ignored materials and forms could reveal their qualities while the status quo would be prevented from coercively suggesting itself to be the natural and eternal order of things.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

In that passage, Alain de Botton was talking specifically about architecture, but his argument is easily applied to materials and forms within the landscape.  Indeed, it may be even more successfully applied to the land, since it is the land itself that speaks most strongly of “the natural and eternal order of things.”  It is that order to which I urge that we return, because the natural world is home to both the materials and the forms with which to express culture and create a sense of place.

“…design is prescriptive rather than descriptive.  Any piece of design contains, to some extent, an assertion about the future.” ~How Designers Think

Secondary to the problem caused by lack of synchronicity between the extended landscape of a given area and the materials used within the landscape plan of a particular property — that being the failure to resonate with locale — is the dimensional flatness of design that speaks only to the past.  Such design is not merely, in Norman’s words, descriptive in the current sense, but descriptive of a time that is ages gone.  Indeed, it is descriptive of a time where impositional design ruled the day.

Picturesque style may have had legitimate forebears in England, being evocative of the pastoral British countryside, but it has no such ancestry in America.  It was and is a built environment, designed by the elite class for the elite class.  It is a construct born of an amorphous concept of idyllic village life, with roots not only in another time but in another place.  The same is true for Tuscan, for Medieval, for Zen, for any style that has been co-opted from its own time or place and planted, whole, behind a split-level in the burbs.  I discussed this in an article called “Translating the Concept Garden“.

Those are concept gardens:  English cottage, French, Medieval, Tuscan, Zen.  A woman took one of my classes some time ago to see if I could help her figure out what the problem was with her Japanese tea garden.  She’d been working on it for a couple of years, and just couldn’t ‘get it right.’  She couldn’t get it right because it was a Japanese garden, complete with tea house, installed on Peaks Island, Maine.

Tea gardens have a zeitgeist; they are rooted in a specific time and place.  When transplanted whole, they are out of context.  There is a garden idiom, just as there is a language idiom, and as you know, idiom does not translate well.  The translation is often bizarre, frequently stilted and always, always out of kilter because it lacks the cultural reference of the original.”

Employing the vernacular of locale allows the translation of a concept — calm and ordered, casual, romantic — into indigenous form with no loss of the meaning or intent of the original garden.  It requires only a slight shift in our way of thinking, a shift that I believe is a matter of enlightened self-interest, and the employment of what Margaret Boden calls psychological creativity.  P-creativity, which she distinguishes from the historical creativity of a Galileo or an Einstein, is a more universal method of applying creative thinking.  We needn’t have the kind of mind that changes human history in order to take a novel approach to an everyday issue.

“What you might do… is make a distinction between ‘psychological’ creativity and ‘historical’ creativity (P-creativity and H-creativity, for short). … The psychological sense concerns ideas (whether in science, needlework, music, painting, literature…) that are surprising, or perhaps even fundamentally novel, with respect to the individual mind which had the idea. … The historical sense applies to ideas that are novel with respect to the whole of human history.” ~The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms

In this case, the novel approach is a method of landscaping that speaks to the inherent beauty, the vernacular aesthetic, of a given area.  That this method is often more cost-effective is the self-interest boon of ecological enlightenment.  That it also creates a landscape that appears more connected to its place, which allows us to feel more connected to our place, is an additional benefit, although slightly more ephemeral than the very tangible cost benefits of using native materials.

“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places — and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”  ~The Architecture of Happiness

Again, although the reference is to architecture proper, the built environment is the built environment, and the concept of rendering vivid who we might be is quietly astonishing.  It is not, however, new; the purpose of the picturesque enclave, as the purpose of  suburbs in general, was to create idealized communities, communities that would make us better citizens, better families, better souls.  The implication of de Botton’s words is more personal than communal, and the implication of a vernacular landscape aesthetic is also more personal in terms of the potential for empathetic response, human to habitat.  If we see ourselves only as caretakers of landscapes from other places, we will continue to be, at least in part, somewhere else, and if somewhere else, not fully invested here.

“Materials available to the human builder vary, however slightly, in time and place, forcing him to think, adjust, innovate.” ~Space and Place

The words in time and place are indicative of more than just an array of the landscape materials in a given area; they are the stock in trade of a complete vernacular aesthetic.  How better to craft a built landscape than to see what nature presents in the larger surrounds?  And how better to integrate ourselves with our environment than to express elements of that environment within our private terrain?  This is, in part, an act of stewardship of the common visual, which I think is also an act of enlightened self-interest.  The common visual constitutes the everyday landscape and while I applaud, and participate in, efforts on behalf of the uncommon, the magnificent landscapes, it is the everyday landscape that feeds us visually.  As I wrote in an article called “The Stewardship of  Small Things“:

“Only the wind is permanent; we occupy a tiny bit of space, each of us, and the earth is constantly shifting under our feet.  Oddly enough, that perception leaves me in good stead when it comes to landscape design because my job, first and foremost, is stewardship.  I get hired to resolve problems of habitation, and my clients are only half of the equation, and the second half at that.  The first is the land, and what it is inclined to do, and what it needs from me in order to accommodate the human element.

That’s a far cry from the last century of design, which was almost entirely impositional.  There were notable exceptions, but by and large the rights of ownership reigned.  If you wanted your property to have a certain look you could, and to some schools of thought should, do it.  Property considerations were confined to matters of zoning and code, to angle and curve, and ideas of stewardship applied only to large tracts of land.

I’m here to argue for stewardship of the small, the ordinary plot of land on which sits the ordinary house.  Bound together, I believe that these ordinary plots are as valuable as large tracts to the ethos of place, and to the common good.” 

Creating a landscape plan that is weighted toward native flora also keeps us at the visceral stage of Donald Norman’s three levels of design (visceral, behavioral, reflective).

“Visceral design is what nature does.  We humans evolved to coexist in the environment of other humans, animals, plants, landscapes, weather, and other natural phenomena.  As a result, we are exquisitely tuned to receive powerful emotional signals from the environment that get interpreted automatically at the visceral level.” ~Emotional Design

A landscape aesthetic based on locale produces designs that most closely mimic nature, and so most readily satisfy that visceral interpretation of place.  Designs which interpret place as ‘other’ in terms of stylistic reference to a specific place or period force us to separate ourselves from the immediacy of place by engaging us primarily at the reflective level.

“The principles underlying visceral design are wired in, consistent across people and cultures.  If you design according to these rules, your design will always be attractive… If you design for the sophisticated, for the reflective level, your design can readily become dated because this level is sensitive to… trends… and continual fluctuation.” ~Emotional Design

Reflection was, in fact, precisely the intent of the picturesque movement.  Built landscapes were meant to be, as in the title of William Adams’ book, Nature Perfected.  Gardens were to be viewed, often from particular vantages, and studied.  That culture, that time period, has come and gone, and I find nothing especially reflective about the remaining fragments of the style.  To be sure, there is nothing wrong with reflection, but a landscape that engages only the mind cannot resonate at the level where we live and breathe.  To be lived in, to be truly inhabited, landscapes must be visceral.

They must also, from both the aesthetic and stewardship points of view, bear kinship to the pre-development landscape.  Designing to the specific locale makes this relationship automatic; the landscape, at least in material if not in form, remains as intact as an inhabited piece of land can be.  This method may exempt the property from the ‘harsh indictments’ that often attend new builds.

“There are few harsher indictments against architecture than the sadness we feel at the arrival of bulldozers, for our grief is in almost all cases fuelled more by a distaste for what is to be built than by any hatred of the idea of development itself.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

There is, of course, bound to be a loss; however gently one inhabits land, habitation requires change.  No aesthetic, not even vernacular, can keep a built property in pristine condition; we live in houses, we have parties on decks or patios, we lay pathways to the gardens.  A vernacular aesthetic simply means that the materials we choose to implement those housing needs should reflect, to the highest degree possible, the materials that are found naturally in the unbuilt surrounds.

This does not mean, however, that only local materials should be used.  There is, for example, a flagstone from Pennsylvania called ‘chocolate grey’ that is a perfect mate to the color spectrum found in the local granite types of southern and mid-coastal Maine.  Because it contains the same color palette, it contains the same visual cues as the other elements in the locale.  Because it ‘reads’ the same, it keeps the viewer in that same visceral state of response that the surrounding environment evokes, allowing the material to  melt into the site and become part of the vernacular experience.

This is slightly less true for plant materials, since we are talking then of more than an aesthetic response.  In terms of total habitat, any aesthetic must include elements in addition to the visual considerations of the humans in residence; we may prefer the look and feel of native materials, but the local fauna are entirely dependent upon the material itself.  Again, the solution is found in a commitment to the land that is at least equal to the commitment to human comfort.  A vernacular aesthetic aims for both.

“We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced.  We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

The final question is how we accomplish such lofty goals as synchronous landscape visuals and intelligent happiness.  The former comes from cleaving to an aesthetic that pays homage to locale rather than to a particular style; designs so created will be both of the landscape and seamlessly in the landscape.  This method of design has an additional benefit in that it offers greater freedom in terms of personal expression.  If I am planting a true Zen garden, I must toe the line not only in overall style but in specific materials.  If, however, I am planting a serene and meditative space, I need only create a landscape which supports that mood, that mindset.  I am free to use whatever local materials bespeak those qualities and, with a highly edited hand, craft my version of serenity.  Whether I’m in the mountains or along the estuary, I have all the tools I need to create the visceral response I’m after, for in both places lie the materials which represent that concept within the framework of locale.

“Today’s aesthetic imperative represents not the return of a single standard of beauty, but the increased claims of pleasure and self-expression.  Beauty in its many forms no longer needs justification beyond the pleasure and meaning it provides.  Delighting the senses is enough:  ‘I like that’ rather than ‘This is good design.’” ~The Substance of Style

Intelligent happiness undoubtedly requires a deeper revolution than any mere shift in aesthetic awareness can provide, but a design aesthetic born of locale will indeed provide a visceral, contented happiness by creating a cohesive habitat.  It will, in addition, do this feat in perhaps a more intelligent manner than non-aesthetic methods.  Since native materials are well-suited to the local ecology, they not only provide visual concordance in the overall view, but tend to require less care once established and have greater survivability at weather extremes.  The cost benefit alone may be sufficient to start the engine of this change-of-taste train, and I suspect that the lure of greater personal expression will provide the fuel to carry it along.

“Lest we begin to despair at the thought of how much might be required to bring about a genuine evolution in taste, we may remind ourselves how modest were the means by which previous aesthetic revolutions were accomplished.” … A few buildings and a book have usually been sufficient to provide viable models for others to follow.  Nietzche observed that the development portentously known as the ‘Italian Renaissance’, which we might imagine to have been engineered by innumerable actors, was in fact the work of only about a hundred people… and a mere 200 or so pages of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture (1923) to decide the appearance of much of the built environment of the twentieth century.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

Unlike le Corbusier’s belief in ‘machines for living’ and all the dispassion which is involved in that view of the constructs of habitation, I come to this aesthetic, finally, as a point of passion.  I want, not merely to love the terrain I inhabit, but to be in love with it.  Loving it will give me de Botton’s happiness; it will give me respect for the surrounds and the desire to care for it, and it will give me a certain peace.  Those things alone are reason enough to embrace the vernacular of locale, but I seek visceral response at the deepest level.

That response may not be available to everyone — or I should say that everyone may not be open and available to that response — but the more we remove the stylistic obstacles that keep us separate from our surrounds, the more likely we are to develop true empathy for the places in which we live.

“Place for me is the locus of desire.  Places have influenced my life as much as, perhaps more than, people.  I fall for (or into) places faster and less conditionally than I do for people. … I can’t write about places without occasionally sinking into their seductive embrace.” ~The Lure of the Local

A slight shift in focus is all it will take.  The land is waiting.

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